Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Meeting the velociraptor

The man comes with some heavy baggage. US ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1989, undersecretary of defense for policy from 1989 to 1993, deputy secretary of defense from 2001 until 2005 and president of the World bank from 2005 until 2007, Paul Wolfowitz — now at the American Enterprise Institute conservative think tank and chairman of the US-Taiwan Business Council — has had a long, eventful career in the US government. He is perhaps better known as a prominent neoconservative and principal architect of the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Wolfowitz was in Taipei this week to give a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, which the media was invited to cover. One could be of two minds about attending a speech by an individual who has played such a prominent role in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq — or, for that matter, for having fleshed out, over the past fifteen years or so, a US policy underpinned by military preemption and hegemonistic ambitions that has resulted in the loss of so many lives worldwide. Still, others would argue that Wolfowitz, as he himself describes himself, is a “true friend of Taiwan,” having played a role, among others, in the George H.W. Bush administration’s decision to sell Taipei F-16 aircraft in the early 1990s, as well as remaining a proponent of providing Taiwan with the military capabilities it needs to defend itself. From Taiwan’s point of view, one could therefore twist the old saying by pointing out that he may be a neocon, but he’s our (Taiwan’s) neocon.

One interesting fact about Wolfowitz’s speech was the total absence of security at the Shangri-la Hotel. Anyone could just have walked in, grabbed a sandwich and a seat in the “media” section, or come within touching distance of the man during the question-and-answer session following his speech. No credentials or business cards were asked of us. While Mr. Wolfowitz is no longer a government official, one would nevertheless assume that his responsibility in the Iraq War and close involvement on defense matters would warrant a modicum of security. My suspicion is that when in Taiwan, Wolfowitz and other US officials, active or retired, feel they are “among friends.” The same probably couldn’t be said of any country with a Muslim population.

Now, to the speech. After an unfortunate slip in his opening remark, where he said that the American Chamber of Commerce was looking forward to promoting relations between the US and China, Wolfowitz was all praise for Taiwan’s accomplishments, first on the economic side as one of the “Asian Tigers” and later as it embarked on the road to democracy — two successes that he claims have also had an impact in China as well as on the international stage. Taiwan’s democratization, he said, put the lie to the old belief that there is such a thing as “Asian values,” often a shorthand for the antidemocratic, authoritarian style of government epitomized by, but not limited to, Singapore. Wolfowitz also lauded the ability of Taiwanese to turn challenges into opportunities, which he said could be a byproduct of their country’s having the (mis)fortune of being located in a region of great strategic importance. Taiwanese always worry, they always need to fix something, he said, which perhaps makes them a nation of “warriors,” or “worriers.”

Throughout his speech and the question-and-answer session that followed, Wolfowitz made clear his view that the administration of Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) opening to China and conflict resolution drive across the Taiwan Strait had “lowered the temperature” and was a good thing, while hinting that the previous administration of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — whom he didn’t specifically name — may have created “unnecessary” problems. In the end, he said, closer ties between Taipei and Beijing are in the US’ interest, adding, however, that China’s military posture in the wake of warmer cross-strait ties remained an unknown and would play a significant role in how the US-China relationship develops.

Amid the new developments in the region, Wolfowitz said, Taiwan should strive to turn itself into a regional economic hub, much as Ireland did in the late 1980s. “If you set your mind to it, a lot of things can be done,” he said. He also looked favorably upon Taiwan’s revamping the rules on business investment in China and called on Taipei to move away from restrictions on sensitive technological investment, such as in the semiconductor sector.

His position on Taiwan gaining access to multilateral organizations was somewhat vague, although he seemed in favor of Taiwan joining the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. Nevertheless, his emphasis on creating more international space for Taiwan did not seem to imply that joining official organizations was necessarily a prerequisite. Rather, he said that educating the world about Taiwan could be “a form of security expenditure.”

Regarding the likelihood that the US would move to strike a free-trade deal with Taiwan, he said he was pessimistic about the next congress’s willingness to move in that direction, given that regardless of which presidential candidate came into office, the composition of congress would not be as favorable to FTAs (in other words, Republicans are good for trade, while the Democrats aren’t).

Given his close past involvement in defense matters, it came as no surprise that the majority of questions asked by the media focused on that sector, especially the uncertainty that has surrounded the US$11 billion arms package to Taiwan. While distancing himself from comments by Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command (PACOM), last week that seemed to confirm that Washington had indeterminable “frozen” arms sales to Taiwan and adding that in his opinion Keating was in no position to officially represent Washington decisionmaking on the matter, Wolfowitz said that President Bush is a man who sticks to his commitments and that he would be surprised if, before his term expires, Bush did not honor that pledge. Asked about the impact of a longer-term “freeze,” Wolfowitz said he would not speculate on something that is unlikely to occur. (According to a source well-connected to the defense industry, nearly half of the items included in the arms package have either been delivered or will soon.) In other words, beyond US strategic interests in the region, congressional pressure, and notwithstanding the commitments included in the Taiwan Relations Act, Wolfowitz was saying that whether the full package of weapons gets delivered or not was contingent on whether Bush and the executive would stick to their word. (Depending on how it is played by the media, this remark could make waves in Beijing and Washington, as it either dares Bush to live up to his reputation or hints that the arms package will indeed pass before the end of Bush’s term.)

All in all, there wasn’t much to Wolfowitz’s speech that hadn’t been said already, and he kept the tough questions on defense at arm’s length by emphasizing that he no longer is a government official. Whether his new role in Taiwan affairs will be to Taiwan’s benefit or not remains to be seen, but my fear is that his track record will not go unnoticed in Beijing, which could over-interpret his role as meaning that the neocons are consolidating their grip on the Taiwan issue while reaching the conclusion that his appointment is part of a US grand strategy to encircle China in its own backyard. Whether Beijing would be right to believe this or not, labels do stick — especially when they were affixed at great human cost.

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